Project Reviews

Making of America
Maintained by the University of Michigan

The result of a collaborative effort between the University of Michigan and Cornell University, the Making of America project seeks to "preserve and make accessible through digital technology a significant body of primary sources related to development of the U.S. infrastructure" from 1850 to 1877. Since 1995, this website has used the materials available at both universities to develop a thematically-related digital library to document the social history of the United States. As of February 2, 2007, the project contains more than 12,600 volumes with almost 3.8 million pages of searchable text.

The site's basic design is straightforward and quite plain. A central block of text on a white background forms the bulk of the main page, headed by the "Making of America" title on a decorative image featuring a railroad locomotive; the navigation appears at the bottom of the page. With no explanation of how to use the site on the main page, the user has two options: 1) type a keyword into the search engine and view the results, or 2) click on one of five links at the bottom of the page: MoA Books, MoA Journals, About MoA, Help, and UMDL Texts Home.

When first arriving at the site, it seems apparent that the primary means of accessing the site's materials is via a standard search function. No guide of terms appears, leaving the user somewhat lost, but by experimenting one finds that the search does an excellent job of retrieving results. For example, a search of the term "Lincoln" returned 78,244 matches in 5056 records. Each match features an excellent list of information, much like a library search result. Title, Publication Info, and the collection name appear, as do links to Result Details, List of All Pages, View First Page, and Add to Bookbag.

The Results Details link gives the user a complete list of pages on which the search term appears, with page numbers on the document and a link to view each, an outstanding feature that greatly enhances the site's usefulness. The List of All Pages link takes the user to an even more detailed look at the search results. In addition to title and publication details, this section gives complete bibliographic information about the print source of the returned result as well as links to every page in the document. The View First Page link takes the user to a readable copy of the document's first page, which allows the user to read it like a book. In appearance and functionality this page operates much like the online journal repository JSTOR, with a scanned image of a print document and links to view the next and previous page.

The Add to Bookbag link offers another helpful feature. When searching or browsing the user can add individual items to the Bookbag, where they are saved for later viewing. This page lists the results in alphabetical order and the entire list can be printed with little difficulty. If the user chooses not to print, the Download Contents link allows the user to save the list directly to their computer. The little details in the Bookbag section make using the site much more user-friendly.

Back on the main page, the links offer more refined search options, though the results still seem very broad. The MoA Books and MoA Journals links send the user to pages much like the main page, with the option of searching each type of material (book or journal) individually. This helps refine the results somewhat, but with no means of limiting the results other than by keyword, the wealth of documents are not as available as a more refined process would make them. However, the sheer volume of materials available on the site makes this an excellent source for primary source documents.

The site does offer the ability to browse an alphabetical list of terms as well. The user can browse books via Subject, Author, or Title and click on a letter of the alphabet to return thousands of results. Journals can be browsed by Volume/Issue or Author/Title. These features improve accessibility to the documents and offers users looking for general information about a topic, without specific details in mind, the opportunity to find appropriate materials much more easily than by searching the 3.8 million pages.

Overall, the Making of America site does a good job of making documents available online, but the inability to limit the search and the primitive usability makes the site less functional that it could be. In addition, the main page could offer more assistance on directions for properly using the search engine. Still, the site succeeds in providing a "digital library of primary sources in 19th-century American social history from the antebellum period through Reconstruction." The useful Bookbag feature, the detailed results for every document, and the vast number of materials available makes this website an excellent tool for historians, students, and the general public.

Nathan Sanderson
University of Nebraska-Lincoln
Reviwed: Spring 2007